Yad Vashem project seeks to name every last victim of the Holocaust

Most people know them as the Six Million. Give her enough time, though, and Cynthia Wroclawski intends to give each one a proper name.

Wroclawski’s mission is to record the names of every victim of the Holocaust. With 3.3 million in her database so far, she’s more than halfway there.

As outreach manager of Yad Vashem’s Shoah Names Recovery Project, Wroclawski is racing the clock. Before the last Holocaust survivors pass away, she needs to find as many as possible, mine their collective memory and paint a portrait of a vanished generation.

She is in the Bay Area this week, meeting with supporters and solidifying what she calls “strategic alliances” with agencies like Jewish Family and Children’s Services.

Networking with such organizations around the world, Wroclawski fields an ad hoc team of caseworkers who interview survivors and their descendents.

“Each victim is part of the national memorial,” she says. “We want to remember them not as numbers but as individuals who once lived. We ask not only for their names but who they were. It becomes a meaningful way to restore their identities.”

Wroclawski calls the project “a symbolic tombstone.” The effort to gather names began at Yad Vashem in 1953, but picked up speed with the advent of the Internet. The Web has allowed researchers to access new documents and track down leads on far-flung survivors.

Despite any high-tech advantages, progress in the names project comes one interview at a time.

“A woman in Tel Aviv remembered everyone from her town so clearly,” Wroclawski says of one interviewee. “A lot of survivors are tormented with ‘Why did I survive and the next person didn’t?’ We have to ask them to sit down with us. They find a lot of relief that they can tell about the people that existed once.”

Multiply those interviews by the tens of thousands, and gaps begin to fill in. The project’s database includes millions of pages of scanned Holocaust-era documents as well as detailed information about individual victims.

The project not only serves as a memorial to the dead, but as a link to the living. More than a few reunions have come about thanks to the project’s Web site.

“There have been three cases of siblings reunited,” she boasts. “Not a month goes by I don’t get emails from people discovering something about their relatives. This is technology in the service of memory.”

Though her last name suggests a personal connection to Holocaust-era Poland, Wroclawski is her married surname. Her grandparents actually came to America from Lithuania and Hungary, landing at Ellis Island during the last wave of Eastern European immigration.

“I have the most typical Jewish American experience,” notes Wroclawski, who majored in marketing and Jewish studies at New York University. “My mother’s family lost a lot of relatives [in the Holocaust] but she doesn’t know the names. No one ever asked.”

Wroclawski made aliyah in 1989 and now lives with her husband and three children on a kibbutz near Jerusalem. For most of the last 20 years in Israel, she worked in media and communications. In 2004, she was recruited to join Yad Vashem and head up the Shoah Names Project.

Can she reach the target of 6 million names? Wroclawski can’t say for sure, but she has no problem staying motivated to keep up the search.

“Eventually we won’t be able to ask any more witnesses,” she says. “That’s why we need the grassroots efforts. I know there are so many stones unturned and always more work to be done.”

For more information on Yad Vashem’s Shoah Names Project, visit www.yadvashem.org.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.